On June 20, Beijing unveiled a proposed national security law for Hong Kong. Despite a year of protests by Hong Kong residents, the law reportedly gives mainland China the ability to prosecute national security infractions in the city. Critics say it will mean the end of free speech in Hong Kong.
Beijing has been adamant that the new law would protect human rights and freedom in Hong Kong and targets only “some terrorist groups.”
With the law’s adoption expected in coming weeks, China’s Communist Party-led government has tried to reinforce this idea. The business community is in full support of its actions, China has insisted.
An editorial in the state-run tabloid Global Times stated:
"Hong Kong's business tycoons have expressed their support of the national security legislation with a much firmer stance than they held during last year's violent protests. They have seen the Chinese central government's determination, and believe the country has sufficient ability to stabilize the situation in Hong Kong through the law. And they know that this is the foundation of Hong Kong's long-term prosperity and stability."
That statement is misleading.
While certain businesses – notably the British banks HSBC and Standard Chartered – have supported Beijing’s bill, this is not the consensus view in Hong Kong’s business community. There is considerable alarm.
In early June, the American Chamber of Commerce Abroad informally surveyed its Hong Kong members about the proposed law. Of the 180 that responded, 60% said the security law would likely harm their operations. About 8 in 10 expressed some degree of concern for the proposal.
The survey was taken before additional details of the proposed law were unveiled last weekend. The chamber, known by the shorthand AmCham, noted in its report on the survey that concerns were “speculative.”
HSBC’s support of the law came after hostile comments in Chinese media. For example, former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying wrote in a Facebook post that “[n]either China nor Hong Kong owes HSBC anything … HSBC’s businesses in China can be replaced overnight by banks from China and from other countries.” Leung is a defender of the proposed law.
“These companies are getting squeezed, and you can see it,” Richard McGregor, an analyst with the Lowy Institute, an Australian foreign-policy think tank, said in an interview with CNBC.
Other businesses that support the law have pointed out that most economies have national security laws in place, according to a report released by the Hong Kong-APEC Trade Policy Group. (APEC, which stands for Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation, is an organization including the United States, Russia, Australia, China and other Asian countries formed to reduce trade barriers.)
The same should have been true for Hong Kong, but its legislature has not been able to draft a national security law in the decades since the British handed control of Hong Kong over to China in 1997, with pledges that self-governance would extend 50 years.
As such, Hong Kong operates according to a “One Country, Two Systems” policy under a constitution called the “Basic Law.” China and supporters like Leung claim the new security law will plug a “loophole” in the Basic Law, which they say requires Hong Kong to outlaw treason and foreign political interference.
Beijing’s move to enact the proposed security law follows massive protests over a now-abandoned extradition bill, which would have allowed China to detain and prosecute Hong Kong residents’ cases in mainland courts.
David Dodwell, the Hong Kong-APEC Trade Policy Group’s executive director, called Beijing’s interference “regrettable.”
“The argument here is not whether we should have a security law, but what the exact content of it is and how it is implemented,” he said.
The respondents in AmCham’s survey also identified independence of the judiciary and “how the freedom of speech will be protected” as important issues in the proposed law. About 65 percent cited “ambiguity in the scope and enforcement of the law” as their top concern.
At the same time, 70 percent of the businesses that responded said they had no plans to relocate – depending on how the law is ultimately drafted.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam has expressed full support for the proposed law, telling China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency it would “only target an extremely small minority of people.”
The Hong Kong Bar Association has questioned the legality of the proposed law. Citing such concerns, the United States has threatened to revoke Hong Kong’s special economic status, which confers access to U.S. markets. The G7 group of industrialized countries, which includes the U.S. and U.K., has called on China to reconsider the proposed law.
Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong fear the worst.
“Beijing’s power is stabbing right into Hong Kong’s judicial and administrative organs like a sword,” Alvin Yeung, a lawyer and member of Hong Kong’s legislative council, told VOA last week.